Marty Lyons to fulfill pledge to Bear Bryant and graduate college

Marty Lyons made a promise to Crimson Tide legendary coach Bear Bryant nearly 40 years ago, and being a man of integrity, he will fulfill the pledge on Dec. 10 when he graduates from the University of Alabama.

He will likely be the only grandfather wearing a cap and gown and walking in the processional in Tuscaloosa to pick up his diploma — one month before his 60th birthday — and Lyons can’t wait.

“They say college is the best four years of your life,” he said with a laugh. “I did it 10 times over. I had fun the whole way.”

This is a pretty neat Thanksgiving story about one of the most caring and giving players to ever play in New York, who gave his word to his coach — who would pass away four years later, just one year after he retired — that he was determined to keep.

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Lyons was an All-America defensive lineman at Alabama and a key part of the team that won Bryant’s fourth national championship in 1978. The Jets picked him in the first round in 1979, he was part of the Sack Exchange, and was inducted into their Ring of Honor three years ago after an 11-year career. He has been the Jets analyst on their radio broadcasts since 2002.

As he was getting ready to leave Tuscaloosa 27 years ago, he went to say goodbye to Bryant. They shook hands.

“Promise me one day you go back and get your degree,” Bryant said.

“I promise,” Lyons said.

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Lyons was 22 years old and 24 credits short. He was majoring in education. He still needed 24 credits when Bryant died in 1983 after suffering a heart attack. “I made him a promise, and if you want to be a man of integrity, you do what you said,” Lyons said.

But it’s not easy to go back to school and play in the NFL. Lyons had started a family and had outside business interests and he had the Marty Lyons Foundation to run…and before you know it, he was 50 years old and still 24 credits shorts. That’s when he contacted officials at the Alabama and attempted to put together a plan that would allow him to earn the credits he needed for his degree.

A SEPT. 1980 FILE PHOTO

Alabama coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant

(Joe Holloway Jr./AP)

There were too many scheduling conflicts and Lyons put it on hold. “At that point it was too overwhelming,” he said. “I didn’t make a full commitment 10 years ago.”

Then, 2 ½ years ago, he and the academic counselors at Alabama came up with a plan. He would began taking online courses. He switched his major to sports marketing. He had a lot of papers to write over the last couple of years. There was a lot of reading.

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“It was time consuming,” he said. “I had to carve out the time. Once I got the first three credits, I was able to see some light at the end of the tunnel. All these different professors, they were there to hold my hand, telling me, ‘Don’t forget you need to hand in this assignment by next week. If you don’t, I have no choice. I can’t pass you.’ They held me accountable.”

He took three credits during the football season when many of his weekends were tied up travelling with the Jets to road games and working Sundays at home games. He took six hours in the offseason and was able to get “life credits” for his work with his foundation.

Two weeks ago, after writing papers on leadership and doing a lot of reading about Ronald Reagan, he passed the last class to get him to 24 credits. So, 41 years after he enrolled at Alabama and 37 years after he left with a great paying job but no degree, he will finally be marching with 22-year-olds.

“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “It’s a perfect example to them that anything is possible. Don’t ever feel like you can’t accomplish the goal you have in mind, even if it’s the steepest hill you have to climb. It’s taken me 41 years. To be honest with you, I don’t know if I would have appreciated it back then as I do now. I would have gotten my degree and gone right into the NFL. It wouldn’t have been the same accomplishment I feel now.”

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He has four children. His daughter Megan graduated from Alabama last year. His son Luke will graduate from Alabama next year. Their old man is right in the middle. He could have gotten on a fast track and graduated with Megan last year but didn’t want to take any of the spotlight away from her. His kids never knew he didn’t have his college degree until he told them he was getting it.

Lyons was back at Alabama last week during the bye weekend to meet with the university president and make sure everything was in order for him to graduate. He presented a lecture about what the students would face once the left the classroom.

“They have to have goals and objectives and values,” he said. “Goals change, values distinguish who you are. Don’t compromise values for a job.”

(l. to r.) Marty Lyons' son Luke, son Jesse, Lyons, wife Christine, son Rocky, granddaughter Liv, daughter-in-law Lindsay and daughter Megan.

(l. to r.) Marty Lyons’ son Luke, son Jesse, Lyons, wife Christine, son Rocky, granddaughter Liv, daughter-in-law Lindsay and daughter Megan.

(Photo Courtesy of Marty Lyons)

Then, he ordered his cap and gown.

He has given commencement addresses, spoken to high school classes, is a motivational speaker and is held in such high regard by the Jets that he accompanied Woody Johnson, Mike Maccagnan and other Jets officials to Dennis Byrd’s funeral last month in Tulsa and gave a eulogy on behalf of the organization.

Lyons’ son Rocky is a doctor, his son Jesse is in medical school, his daughter Megan is a teacher and his son Luke is a junior at Alabama. They will all be at his graduation along with his wife, Christine.

“They are the driving force for what I do,” he said.

As soon as graduation is over, he will drive to Birmingham, get on a flight and connect through Dallas and continue on to San Francisco. The Jets play the 49ers on Dec. 11.

Lyons wasn’t motivated by money to get his degree. University officials even asked him, “Why now?”

He wanted it because he made a promise 37 years ago to a man who meant so much to him and couldn’t let him down.

“He was the only one who could hold me accountable for that promise,” Lyons said.

He held himself accountable. The grandfather is graduating.

Tags:
nfl
college football
new york jets
alabama crimson tide
university of alabama

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